“Charlie!” Arthur bellowed from downstairs, “Oi! Charlie! Get your ass down here, there’s someone here who wants to take a look at ya.”
Rolling her eyes Charlotte considered ignoring her brother, absolutely hating it when things were demanded of her. But she had been stuck in her room for the past three days and she was desperate to spend time anywhere outside of these four walls.
“Coming!” She yelled back.
Charlotte rolled out of bed and tucked her blouse into her grey trousers. Grabbing a belt from the floor she wrapped it around her waist, and stepped into a pair of John’s old shoes. Still getting use to the new women’s clothes that had been gifted to her, she gave herself a once over in the mirror before she headed down.
The outfit had been a gift from her sister and aunt. For years now Ada had been desperate to get Charlotte out of their brother’s old shirts and worn down trousers and into something more suited for a young girl. Knowing full well that she was not interested in skirts and dresses, Ada and Polly had conspired to buy her a handful of new blouses and ‘women’s trousers’. All in effort to replace the hand-me-downs she’d gotten from her brothers.
She had been skeptical at first, refusing to try on a single pair of the heeled shoes that they had brought home. But she had to admit that the trousers fit much better than anything she’d ever owned before, and she knew it made Polly happy seeing her dress more like Ada. Her aunt had always hated Charlotte following her brothers around Small Heath trying to be like them; dress like them, act like them, curse like them. Polly said it was going to get Charlotte hurt and in big trouble one day.
She wasn’t wrong either. One day, a few years before the war, Charlotte had had enough of a schoolmate bullying her about their mother’s death and lack of a father. She was tired of getting kicked in the shins and told that she’d end up in the workhouse, orphaned and all alone. She became dead set doing exactly what her brothers would do: knock those words right out of Elijah Miller’s big fat mouth.
One morning before school she snatched Arthur’s razor cap from where he left it on the table, hid it in the bottom of her school bag, and waited until the end of the day for Elijah to make an appearance in the school yard. She wasn’t disappointed. Strolling up to her with a stupid smirk on his face, the boy wasn’t able to get a single word out before she was on him.
The fight only lasted a minute or two, but she got a fair amount of cuts and kicks in before the teacher managed to separate the two children. She had been sent home with a split lip, a bruised cheek, and a note saying that her brother could visit the school house if he’d like his cap back. Once she had arrived home her aunt and brothers had demanded an explanation for her behaviour. She’d never been one for fighting before, why now?
Sitting down at the table she told them about the name calling, threats that the coppers would take her away, as well as the perfectly timed kicks he delivered while the teachers weren’t looking. Arthur had listened, getting more and more angry as she went on, finally asking why she hadn’t come to one of them for help.
“Because...” she explained, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “...I wanted to teach that fucking cocksucker a lesson, all by meself.”
At this Arthur had spit his drink and almost cracked a rib laughing, saying she had the makings of a Peaky Blinder, no doubt. Her aunt, on the other hand, had walloped her a good one, making sure she wouldn’t be able to fight, sit, or get the taste of soap out of her mouth for weeks to come.
Smiling at the memory of Elijah Miller crying his stupid eyes out after the fight, Charlotte hurried down the stairs. Jumping down the last step she paused to see Arthur handing a platted sandwich to a familiar looking man. Looking at his face she couldn’t tell how old he was, but it was obvious that he was much older than Polly. With memorable and significant wear and tear around his face, Charlotte knew that she had seen him before, but couldn’t quite place him. Looking over to Arthur, he held a grin and expectant eyes, but no explanation left his mouth.
Without words, the man stepped forward to engulf Charlotte in a hug. Catching her off guard, and not sure how to react, she kept her arms at her sides. Letting the embrace take place and hoping it would be over as soon as it started. He soon let go of her but held onto her shoulders keeping her an arms distance away.
“Let me look at ya.” He examined her, making Charlotte blush, both in irritation and embarrassment. “So grown up, me little Lottie. I can’t believe it.”
Not liking this examination, and not understanding who this man was, she gave John a questioning look from over the man’s shoulder. He avoided his eyes, shifted his weight, and looked down. Finding no answers with either of her brothers she brought her gaze back to the man who still held her shoulders.
Giving a small smile she quietly asked, “Do I know you?”
The man straightened, the grin disappearing from his face. She heard John chuckle and Arthur clear his throat.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–” she began, not sure why her question seemed to turn the room sour.
Finally deciding to intervene, Polly stepped forward to stand behind Charlotte. Removing the man’s hands from her niece, she propelled the young girl forward toward John.
Polly took a deep breath and introduced Charlotte to the man before her, “Sweetheart, this is my big brother, Arthur. Your father.”
Charlotte watched as Polly headed back to the mantle for a cigarette, shutting the shop doors on her way to prevent anybody from snooping. John reached his arm around his sister, pulling her close and letting her lean on him. It was her turn to look the man up and down. She took in his dark, tidy hair — much like Arthur's and Tommy's. He had wild green eyes, that happened to match both hers and her sisters. And lastly, his smirk that reminded her all too much of John.
A distant memory hummed in the back of her mind. A young girl drifting to sleep in her father’s arms, reaching up and asking, “Da, why’d ya get those scars on your face?”
The silence in the room was a heavy weight as Charlotte became lost in her mind, trying to follow the thread that would lead her to more memories. Oblivious to the expectation for her to break the silence, she stood, consumed in her thoughts. Arthur Jr., unable to take the silence a moment longer informed his father that their sister, Ada, had recently had a baby of her own.
“He’s a tough little thing, he is, like his uncles.”
“And his mother.” Charlotte added, standing up straight and throwing a glare Arthur’s way.
“Ada’s been taking care of him all on her own since Tommy had his father locked up–” John interrupted her, “Come on Lottie, we all know Tommy didn’t snitch on Freddy.”
“That’s what he says. It doesn’t matter anyway because Ada thinks he did. So now she won’t let any of us see her, not even Aunt Pol, and she’s got no one helping her to take care of a new baby. I don’t think a single one of you could take care of a baby all by yourself. John can hardly keep his own kids from shooting their fingers off! Ask me? She’s tougher than all you put together.”
John boxed her on the ear for her comment, growling in irritation, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t going to let her father get the impression that his daughters didn’t measure up to his sons.
Laughing at her impetuous outburst, Arthur Sr. turned his gaze to his youngest once more. “Little Lottie, wearing trousers and speaking your mind! How old are you now? Twelve? Thirteen? You couldn’t be much older th–”
Interrupting his train of thought Charlotte glared, “I’m fourteen. Well, almost fourteen.”
John laughed, “You won’t be fourteen ‘till next year. Saying otherwise won’t make it happen sooner.” Charlotte huffed rolling her eyes at her brother.
Interrupting their moment her father started in, “No, no, no, me girl. You don’t want to grow up any faster than ya need to.”
Looking down she muttered under her breath, “I’m not your girl...”
But her father pressed on, “Tough as nails, this one. I can tell. Just like her mother.” Charlotte looked back up to her father. Taking a step forward away from the wall, she asked, “Can you tell me about her? Nobody here ever talks about her. There’s so much I want to know–”
Interrupting, her aunt made herself known again, “I don’t think we need to go revisiting the past.”
Raising his voice in frustration their father spoke to their aunt, “Please, woman. I’m a guest of the head of this house and I’d like to tell my daughter about her mother. Why don't you tend to your mangle or your scuttle?”
John scoffed at their father, “The head of the house ain’t here.”
Looking to his oldest for an explanation, Arthur Jr. started on about Tommy’s role in the family business. “...helps me out more now...”
Noticing the disgust in her father’s face, Charlotte realised that their father was disappointed in his oldest. Her brother became embarrassed, and continued to mumble on. In an effort to distract her father from her brother, Charlotte was about to ask about her mother again, when she was interrupted once more.
The back door opened and Tommy sauntered into the kitchen. “Well, speak of the devil! How are ya son?” Their father stood up to great his second oldest.
Tommy stood silent and motionless. The room chilled as they all anxiously waited for Tommy to address his father. Unable to stand still with all the tension, Charlotte rocked on her feet and shoved her hands into her pockets.
The movement caught her brother’s attention and his gaze turned to her. “Charlie, upstairs. Now.”
She hated it when he was demanding. She hated when he treated her like a child. And she hated the idea of spending the rest of the day in her room. Glaring at her brother, she tried to come up with the right thing to say that could change his mind. Shaking her head she looked to her father and back up to her brother.
Stumbling over her words, “But Arthur said– I– You can’t– He’s–” Polly knew this wasn’t going to end well.
She interrupted her niece's stuttering, “Sweetheart...” Polly made sure Charlotte was looking directly into her eyes as she attempted to convey the seriousness of the situation. “Sweetheart, you’re already in trouble. You haven't been allowed to leave your room in three days. Let’s not make this harder than it needs to be. Do what your brother says.”
Anger radiated off of Charlotte at her aunt’s words. Clenching her fists and squaring her shoulders she began to argue, “But Pol! It’s Da. Right here. For the first time in– ever! And– And–”
Her argument faded off as she became distracted by John behind her, “Wonder where he’s been, eh?”
Turning her frustration on him, “Fuck off, John!” Whipping her head back around to Polly, “I want to talk with him!”
Jerking her chin at Tommy, she went on, “He can’t do this. He can’t make me. This isn’t right. I want to know about her. Shaking her head with more vigour, “No. Just– NO!” Her last shout aimed at Tommy glaring at him in defiance.
Gazing back, unaffected by her outburst, he cleared his throat, “Charlotte, I won’t tell you a third time. Get upstairs. Now.” His voice cold and unforgiving, she clenched her jaw and tears welled in her eyes.
Looking to Arthur for help, he avoided his gaze, finding the table far more interesting. She stomped her foot in frustration and took a step toward the green doors. She looked at her father one last time. He smiled and put up a hand to stop her from taking another step.
“Now, son, I was about to tell your sister here all about your dearly departed mother. It seems you boys aren’t doing her justice. You’re not keeping her memory alive.” Polly groaned and at their father’s words and Tommy narrowed his eyes, drawing the last bit of warmth from the room. His eyes never leaving his father’s, Tommy muttered his brother’s name, “John...”
Taking a breath and pushing himself off the wall, John knew this wasn’t going to end well. His sister would not give up easily, and Tommy wasn’t going to stand by while their father tried to weasel his way back into their home. And for all the bitter cold Tommy’s glare was giving, more heat was radiating off Charlotte in her anger.
“Yeah, yeah.” taking a step forward “Come on now, Lottie...” Glancing at Tommy as he made his move, John grabbed his sister by the shoulders holding on tight and forcefully guiding her forward, past their father, toward the green doors.
Charlotte took two small steps forward before she growled in frustration and tried to shake free of John’s grasp. “Fine!” She yelled, pausing to gather her strength once more. Turning she pushed John off of her, raising her fist toward him.
“I’m going! Get off of me!” She grabbed the handle on the green door and turned her face over her shoulder, “I fucking hate you, Thomas.” The door flew open wide, slamming against the wall and she stomped up the stairs toward the bedrooms.
As she reached the top she could hear her father laughing, “That girl there is small and deadly. She’s got a stubborn mind that could tear a soul in two.”
Realising that nobody downstairs could see her at the top of the stairs. She lowered herself to the floor and strained to hear the rest of the conversation. Nothing. She couldn’t hear a thing.
Leaning closer to the stairwell, Tommy’s voice finally drifted up, “Get out.”
“Come on, son. I'm a changed man.” There was a cold edge to their father’s voice.
Tommy matched the tone immediately, “This family needed you twelve years ago when you walked out on it. Not now. Get out of this house.”
Charlotte couldn't hear what Arthur said next, but she did hear Tommy’s raised voice telling his older brother to shut up. Chairs moved and feet scuffed on the wooden floors.
“It's all right, son. Arthur Shelby never stays where he is not welcome. Quite something you've become.” A pause then, “Give your sisters my love.” More shuffled steps and the front door slammed shut.
After a moment Arthur voiced Charlotte's thoughts, “He's our dad.” Tommy fired back, “He's a selfish bastard.” Arthur scoffed, “You calling someone a selfish bastard? That's a bit rich, Tommy. I mean, thanks to you we're already down a bloody sister. And that one up there, she’s ready to run out on us too.”
“You want to see him, Arthur? You want to see him? You can go with him.” More steps and the door slamming again. Charlotte knew she should head down the hall to her room, but the possibility of learning more held her to her spot.
She heard John ask what he should do about Arthur. Then mumblings from her aunt. Pacing. Then Polly’s voice came through a bit louder this time, “What are you going to do, Thomas? You need to stop carrying the world on your shoulders. Let me help.”
Tommy’s voice this time, “No. I’ve got to take care of this business myself now don’t I, Pol?” The second door leading into the betting shop creaked open. Charlotte assumed that there must be something important that Tommy needed to take care of in his office.
Charlotte had been hearing a lot about a man named Billy Kimber, and whispers about stolen guns. But lately her brothers had been keeping her far enough away from business that she never really knew what was happening and who was involved.
Lost in her thoughts Charlotte startled when the shouting started up again. Standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up at her was Tommy.
“Oi! What did I tell you to do?” His cold demeanour gone, he was raging now. She knew that she should get up, without saying a word, and walk to her room. But she was furious that Thomas had kicked their father out and taken away any real chance she had to get to know him.
Unable to keep her attitude in check, Charlotte cocked an eyebrow, looked Tommy dead in the eye, and replied, “I’m upstairs, aren’t I?”
She was right, she should’ve taken her chance and run to her room without saying a damn thing. His foot stomped on the first step, “You know what I fucking meant.” Each word raised in volume, punctuated by his marching up the stairs.
Charlotte scrambled to get her feet under her, barrelling down the hallway into her room. Slamming the door, Tommy was still raging at her, “Charlotte, you open that door. Right. Fucking. Now.”
She managed to get her chair wedged under the handle before her brother reached the door, preventing him from storming in and strangling her.
“I swear to God, Charlotte...!” He was rattling the door handle, trying to push open the door. She leaned against the chair keeping the door shut, stunned. She had no idea what her next move should be.
She couldn’t remember the last time Tommy had been this angry. Panicked, she tried to tell herself that she could make an escape out the window. She could shimmy out on her stomach, keep hold of the brick ledge, and then her drop would only be about five feet or so. She’d get bruised on the landing, but she’d be alive. She wasn't convinced she'd be alive if she stayed in the house.
She was saved from her poorly conceived plan by Polly trying to reason with her brother. “Thomas, leave the poor girl alone. You go on to business, I’ll talk with her. She’s emotional–”
“No!” Tommy stopped her from continuing, “I’m dealing with this now. I’m tired of being disobeyed and defied in this home and in this business. First Ada, running off and marrying Freddy. Then Arthur brining that man into this house. Now Charlotte, taking after her big sister with this attitude–” Polly cut in, “It’s your attitude too, Thomas.”
Pausing his tirade, she heard her brother take a breath. When he started speaking again he was deadly calm.
“Charlotte Shelby, open this door immediately.” Another pause. Another breath. “If you don’t open it right now, I will break it down. You know I will. Should you force me to do so, you will not like the consequences.”
She shouted back through the door, “Just fuck off and leave me alone!” She tried to stop the words as they left her mouth. They were childish. It wasn’t what she wanted to say. But she didn’t know what exactly it was that she did want to say. She needed to take a breath and figure out a way to talk this through with him.
Interrupting her thoughts Tommy continued on, “Charlotte, open this door now, or I will break it down. If I break it down, you will lose the door. I’ll not be getting you a new one. Then I will then take every single book you have in that room, and I will destroy them.”
Looking around her room at all the books strewn about on the floor, cluttering the one bookcase, stacked in corners, she didn’t think Tommy would actually take them away from her. Her library was her most prised collection. She’d been collecting them all her life. It was the only thing she and Ada could bond over.
“You wouldn’t.” she whispered through the door.
“Watch me.” Was his cold response. “Those books will be gone. I’ll tear them apart and burn them to a bloody crisp. Those pages will start the stove in the morning. They’ll be what keep our rooms warm at night. They’ll be lining the tinder box. Every time you have a cup of tea, you’ll be warming the kettle with those pages.”
Polly came to her defence, “Thomas, think about what you’re saying. You wouldn’t do that, not to our Charlie. You’re only upset about your father. Come on now, leave her be.” Scoffing at her words Tommy continued on, “I’ve had enough of this. Open the door now, Charlotte. You know the consequences.”
She did know the consequences. He had clearly explained every detail to her. Her entire life Tommy generally spoke to her as an equal. He’d always gone on about how if he spoke to her as an adult, she’d act like one. Which is why it made her so angry when he turned cold and demanding. Any time he actually involved her in the business they hid nothing. Everything was on the table. She helped. She made decisions. But she hated being involved one day then told to fuck off the next. Polly tried to keep her out of the business entirely, but Tommy said she needed to work on her ‘critical thinking skills’, which he often told her she was lacking whenever she got herself into trouble. Tapping her on her forehead he’d lecture, “If you’d just stop and think about the results of your actions before you made a decision you’d have an easier go of things.” She hated it when he was right.
There was a long pause, but eventually Tommy heard the small voice on the other side of the door. “Ok. Alright. But, just wait, please. Please Tom, let me move the chair, ok? And don’t knock me over.”
He grunted in response, and behind him Polly sighed in relief.
Looking down he saw the handle wiggle on the door, he heard the scraping of a chair across the room. After a creak of the floorboards and the whine of the bed springs he finally heard a small, contrite, “Alright, it’s open.”
Opening the door he saw his sister sitting on her bed clutching two books in one hand and unsuccessfully trying to hide a few more under her quilted bedding. Tears brimmed her eyes and her face was full of rage. Just another Tuesday for the Shelby family.
Standing in the doorway he slowly pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. He took his time. Letting Charlie sit there, waiting, stewing, wondering. Letting himself take a steadying breath before he started in on her.
“You’re pushing me, little girl. This is not the time for this behaviour. There’s too much happening–” interrupting him, “But you never let me in the meetings anymore. I never know what’s happening!”
Staring her down at the interruption, she blinked and looked away. “Right. Well, maybe it’s time to change that. But you need to get yourself together. No more of this...” waving his cigarette around “...behaviour. Do you understand me?”
Waiting for a response and not hearing one he raised his voice, “Do you understand me, Charlotte?”
“Good.” As he stood there, he took a deep breath, finalising in his mind what punishment his sister would receive. “Now stand up.” He waited for her to obey. Not looking at him she slowly inched her way off the bed, books still in her hand.
Chuckling to himself he knew what she was thinking, “You think you’re getting the strop, eh? You sure as hell deserve it. Don’t you?” Pausing to let her squirm under his assessment, waiting to see if she’d answer him. He shook his head, exhausted, “But, no. Not today, Charlie. I don’t have time for any of this today.”
Hearing that her punishment would be less severe than she had imagined she finally stood and took a step in his direction. Tommy continued, “Right. Now, you pick out ten of your books and hand them to me.”
Surprised, a choked sob escaped her lips, “No! Tommy, please, I opened the door. Please.” This time the tears fell. Tears for her stories, but none for her family.
Exasperated, he sighed again, “Calm down, Charlie. I’m taking them as collateral. I’m not burning them. They’re going in my office as a guarantee that you’ll be on your best behaviour this next week. There’s a lot that’s going to be happening and if you behave, you’ll get them back. But, if you act out, the books are gone. Do you understand? Are you hearing me?”
Looking down, Charlotte nodded her head. “Say it.” Tommy demanded.
“Yes. I hear you.”
He continued on, “Now do as I asked and pick out ten books and hand them to me.”
Sighing she turned and set the two books that were clutched in her hands on her bedside table. She then started toward the single small bookshelf near the window. She hadn’t taken even three steps when she heard Tommy’s rebuke, “No, I don’t think so, Charlie. I know your system here.”
Once again waving his cigarette to point at her stacks of books, “Those books there are old children’s books; you don’t read them anymore. No. Try again.” Turning to look at her brother he jerked his head toward the ones she’d only a moment ago set down. “Those ones, there. That’s one and two. Hand those over. And those two on the pillow, three and four.”
Throwing her hands up she started to argue with him, “But I’m in the middle–” Tommy took his first step into her room, clearly losing his patience, “Do as I say, Charlotte.”
Stomping back to the small table she grabbed the books he requested and thrust them at his chest. “Pick out the rest from under that blanket there, on your bed. Those seem important enough to hide from me, they’ll be important enough to keep you behaved.”
Ignoring his sister’s groans of injustice, he turned with the first four books in his hands to pass off to Polly. Taking the books she gave a knowing smile, and whispered “I knew you wouldn’t have destroyed them. You’re a gangster, Tommy Shelby, but you’re soft on her.”
Rolling his eyes he turned his attention back to his sister. Sitting on the bed muttering to herself mockingly as she threw books around, obviously stalling, “...‘choose’ he says. ‘I don’t have time for this’ he says. ‘Do this’, ‘don’t do that’. I’m Tommy, I’m the king of the bloody–” Walking forward, his patience completely gone,
“Alright, that’s enough. Give me those.” He said pointing to six more books. Nodding, Charlotte reluctantly handed over her most valued possessions, unsure if she’d get them back. Tommy took the books, turned and handed them to Polly. “I need one more minute with her, Pol, then I’ll be down.”
She took the books and made her way back to the stairs through the wall that had been knocked down to create a hallway between the first two homes the family had owned. Taking her time getting back down the stairs, Polly began to reminisce.
Not long after the illegal gambling business had taken off Arthur Shelby Sr. had purchased the home next door to expand their business. With the help of his sons they had managed to renovate the two homes into something that would be able to handle both the growing business and the growing family.
Around the time that her sister-in-law had become pregnant with Charlotte — and herself with her Michael for that matter — Arthur and the boys decided to surprise their mother with an indoor washroom. She had started having a hard time getting up and down the stairs with the baby kicking her bladder all day and night. So they knocked down the staircase in the main house, installed water pipes and sinks, laid down upstairs flooring, and managed to fit a toilet into the downstairs room.
Everyone had been impressed, the first house in Small Heath to have an indoor toilet and washroom and those boys were the cock of the walk for weeks. Sighing at the memories she put Charlie’s books on Tommy’s desk; it would be a miracle if that girl got these books back at the end of the week. Looking at the clock on the wall she realised the dinner hour was fast approaching and she’d need to feed these Shelby’s something, and soon.
Tommy turned back to the petulant sister pouting on her bed and rolled his eyes. “Now, listen. John’s been on my ass about involving you more in the business. Says that you’re getting into more trouble on your own not knowing what’s going on than if you were more involved. And at this point I’m starting to agree.”
Charlotte sat up straighter a small grin appearing on her face.
“Wipe that smile off your face. This isn’t a guarantee. Now, today was your last day stuck in here for that rum you stole from the Garrison on Saturday, yeah?” The grin was gone, a scowl replacing it as she nodded. “Well, now you won't be leaving this room for the rest of the week for that shit you just pulled. When the week is over, you and me, we’ll have another discussion. Then we’ll have a family meeting and you’ll have your vote.”
She quietly thanked him as he stubbed out his cigarette on the door frame. “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve still confiscated ten of your books. I expect you to behave. That means following orders. Keeping that mouth of yours shut. And for fucks sake Charlie, stay in this room, yeah?” Biting her lip, Charlotte nodded in reply. “Good. Now, this door stays open. No more barricades. And I want to see you being a precious angel if I look down the hall.”
Charlotte couldn’t help a small laugh at that. “That means you better be in this room for me to see. No sneaking out when you think I’m asleep. No sleeping in Uncle Charlie’s yard with the horses. You stay here. If those mates of yours come ‘round, I’ll send John out to scare them off. I’m serious.”
Charlotte nodded at his rules. “Good. I’m also confiscating this chair.” He said while grabbing the chair she’d used to lock her brother out of the room. “This will going in my room until further notice.” Pointing a finger at her to emphasise his point, “You stay here. I’ve got to deal with some business with Pol.“
As Tommy turned to take her chair across the hall, past the washroom, and into his own room, Charlotte knew she needed to say something while she had his attention.
“Tom... Tommy?” He turned to her, eyebrow raised.
“I’m sorry. About before. I didn’t mean it. What I said, when I said I hated you. I don’t, I promise.” Unsure how her brother would react to what she would say next she tentatively continued. “And I’m sorry about Da, I didn’t know you hated him so much. It’s just... It’s just that it’s not fair. They were both gone before I was old enough to remember them. You all got to spend so much time together, even Ada. But I didn’t get a chance to make any memories with them, and none of you will share the memories you have with me.”
Taking a breath and trying not to cry, she continued. “Before the war I know it made you sad when I asked about them, you hated me bringing it up — Arthur and John too. And I know I asked a lot.”
Tommy shook his head, remembering her persistence.
“Did you know that when you came back Aunt Pol told me not to bring it up anymore? She said that things would be different now, and that for your sake the past had to stay buried in the past. And I understand that, I do. I think. I understand that there’s been too much... badness. I understand that you saw and did terrible things over there.”
Furiously wiping away a tear that managed to escape, she paused to chew on her lip, thinking hard.
“Sometimes it feels like I lost my whole family in the war. I’m grateful that I got all my brothers back, but I miss the people you use to be, I miss the way things were before. But more than that, I miss not having a mother. I know I can't miss something I never truly had. It doesn’t make sense. But I never got to know her, and I still don’t know anything about her. But you do. You all do. You all knew her — and Da too. I know I’m not supposed to bring up the past, but it’s not fair...”
Taking a ragged breath and wiping her nose with the back of her hand, her traitorous tears fell in earnest. More words began to tumble out of her mouth, unsure of her point anymore, but unable to stop, “It’s not fair, and I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know, Tommy. I’m just sorry. I’m so sorry...”
Quickly walking back to Charlotte, Tommy sat on the edge of her bed and let his sister throw herself into his lap, curling into a ball, her small body wracked with sobs. He leaned back against the bed frame and stroked her hair, trying to comfort her, realising that she hadn’t had a breakdown like this since before the war, when she was only a child — back when they were all only children.
“It’s alright Charlie girl. I know you’re sorry, I know. It’ll be alright. Just breathe, and it’ll all be better. I’ll talk to the boys and we’ll figure something out. Alright? Put it out of your mind.”
It didn’t take long for Charlotte’s tears to dry up, after all, she’d never been one for tears, that had always been Ada’s way. Eventually silence settled in on the two, both lost in their own minds. Tommy pulled out a cigarette and searched his jacket pockets for a match. As he exhaled a cloud of smoke and flicked his ashes onto a plate leftover on the bed from breakfast, Tommy began to relax.
Looking down at Charlotte, still a ball in his lap, he whispered, “We haven’t done this in a long time, have we?” Charlotte nodded her head, but didn’t make a sound, clearly not wanting to talk. Tommy let the silence take over once again.
After nearly a half of an hour Charlotte’s breath had evened out and she was fast asleep. Tommy reached over and tried to pull Charlotte’s blanket over her. Realising he couldn't without a mountain of books crashing off the bed. He attempted to move the ones she’d tried to hide from him to the floor, but only managed to knock over a stack near his feet.
Sighing, he let it be and made a mental note that she’d need to clean this mess while she was stuck in here this week. Grabbing the plate — now covered in cigarette ash — he slid off of the bed, trying not to wake Charlie or knock over any more books in the process.
At his movement Charlotte stretched and her eyes fluttered open, groggily looking up at him. Unsure if she was actually awake he whispered to her, “Go back to sleep, Charlie girl. I’ll come get you when dinner’s ready.” She mumbled something incoherent and curled back up, immediately asleep. He found himself becoming jealous of her quick retreat into darkness as he made his way down to the kitchen. To Polly and to business.
“What was all that about?” Polly questioned him, taking the dirty plate and motioning him to sit at the table.
“I don’t know yet, Pol. But I think she’s been angry for longer than any of us imagined.”
She smirked at him, “Of course, she’s a Shelby isn’t she? Just like her brothers, she takes on the weight of the world, and smiles while doing it. She tries to do what she can to keep her family safe and protected. And she thinks that means keeping everything bottled up and hidden from everyone. You’ll never hear her voice her troubles, but you’ll find her stealing rum and fighting boys twice her size out near your uncle’s yard. She carries on like a soldier, trying to be just like you.”
Tommy knew she was scolding him, in her own way.
“I know you won’t want to hear this, but your father wasn’t wrong — what he said before — about her splitting a soul in two. I'm just not sure if it’ll be her own or someone else’s.”
Getting up to pour himself a whisky he told his aunt, “I’m not interested in any gypsy fortunes or prophecies, Pol. Charlie will be fine, I’ll see to it myself.”
Downing his glass, he poured himself another.
“I think I know what it’ll take to get her to stop with all this stealing, and fighting, and lying–”
Interrupting, Polly scolded him further, “All it would take, Thomas, is a switch and a bar of soap — just like when you were young. While you boys were gone she was a saint. Well, as much of a saint as any Shelby could be. But the point is, I handled her, I handled both your sisters for that matter. All while I ran this business–”
Now it was Tommy’s turn to interrupt, “Enough, Pol. Enough. I’ve heard it before, I don’t want to hear it again.”
Slamming his glass on the table he continued, “The men came back. We’re back, and I’m handling things now — both the business and my sister. So drop it, we have more important things to fight about. We need to focus on Kimber and this Inspector Campbell.”